Review: ‘First Reformed’ is a Chilling Cautionary Tale of a Radical Isolationist Mind

A chilling self examination of mankind and its influence on God’s creation.

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A chilling self examination of mankind and its influence on God’s creation.

RATING: ★★★1/2 (out of four stars)

Every few years or so, a film comes around that shocks audiences to their core.  Taxi Driver pulled this off in 70s and launched itself into cultural landmark status.  Now the writer of Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader, is back with a spiritual film that puts humanity under the lens with razor sharp focus.

First Reformed tells the story of Reverend Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), who is the minister of small tourist church outside New York, and his congregation is all but non existent.  One of the few members of his flock, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried), asks him to personally speak with her husband who is a former environmental activist and his radical actions landed him in prison.  This conversation sparks something inside Toller that ignites his frustrations with the world and calls his faith into question.

In one of the most daring films in recent years, Schrader puts humanity on blast.  It is difficult to recall of a spiritual film that so adequately examines the minutia of the human condition.  We are a fickle species.  We have an innate desire to do what we think is right, but we also want to conform to the world in which we live.  Schrader has crafted characters that exemplify these traits.  Toller is a man who, through much pain and loss, understands what it means to be overcome with despair yet hope for me.  Mary understands what it means to want to a normal life for her family, even if it means sacrificing her passions.  The minister of the nearby megachurch (played by Cedric The Entertainer) understand what it means to be a part of the real world

The first two third of the film feel like a window in Anytown, USA.  Every scene feels like a conversation between real people.  The drama feels genuine and nothing feels too extraordinary for the sake of being a movie.  Everything is expertly paced to slowly draw out the tension till everything comes to a head in the final act.  Much like Taxi Driver, the final act is where things get a bit too grandiose for the tone of the rest of the film.  Not to say that is a bad thing, as viewers are drawn to the edge of their seat with each passing moment in anticipation for the final moments of the film.

The performances are what breathe live into the film.  Ethan Hawke gives a career defining performance, flawlessly transitioning from the everyday man to a man crippled by the despair of loneliness from scene to scene.  Cedric the Entertainer is a surprising delight, as he is typically not a dramatic actor.  He brings with him a likable air that is so quintessential for a minister, one that lets you know this is a man of god and you know you’re supposed to like him.

Schrader is a calculated filmmaker; everything is done with purpose.  The minimalist soundscape pulls the ever growing tension throughout the film.  The lack of over the shoulder shots during dialogue scenes forces viewers to damn near make eye contact with the actor in the claustrophobic 4:3 ratio.  Every subtle tick and mannerism an actor emotes is visible and serves Schrader’s vision.  First Reformed is one of the most carefully crafted films of the year, and its philosophies will linger with audiences for days after the credits finish rolling.

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